Asari Dokubo’s Unquiet Reemergence Tinubu’s Meeting with Asari Dokubo: Smart Peace Move or Terroristic Disaster?

With his meeting with President Tinubu last week, Asari Dokubo’s reemergence has raised concerns among Nigerians. Historically, attempts by previous governments to work with Asari Dokubo have either failed or fallen short. Will Tinubu be the first to hack it? 

On Friday, 16 June 2023, President Bola Tinubu met with former Niger Delta militant, Melford Dokubo Goodhead Jr., more commonly known as Asari Dokubo, at Aso Rock. Although details of their closed-door meeting were not made public; however, Asari Dokubo caused controversy when in a press conference afterwards, he blamed the Nigerian army and navy for the oil theft in the Niger Delta region. Asari Dokubo added that he ‘and his brothers’ assured the president of their support and commitment to zero oil theft in Nigeria. ‘The military,’ he said, ‘is at the centre of oil theft and we have to make this very clear to the Nigerian public that 99 per cent of oil theft can be traced to the Nigerian military, the Army and the Navy especially.’

The leadership of the army and navy immediately refuted Asari Dokubo’s allegation, challenging him to provide evidence. While the navy claimed the latest operation by the service had saved the country from losing N71 billion to oil thieves, the army insisted that it had zero tolerance for any compromise on the part of its troops and would not condone such acts of economic sabotage.

Tinubu’s meeting with Asari Dokubo seems to be part of a larger attempt to protect Nigeria’s oil interest and address the problem of oil theft. According to the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, Nigeria, from 2009 to 2020 lost N16.3 trillion to oil theft. A week ago, presumably to resolve the oil theft crisis, Tinubu had met with the former managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission, Timi Alaibe, and the former director-general of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, Dr Dakuku Peterside.

While Tinubu might be concerned about protecting Nigeria’s oil assets, his meeting with a known former militant has raised eyebrows. In 2004, Asari Dokubo founded the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, a militant organization that terrorized the Niger Delta region in its battle for resource control. Conflict in the Niger Delta goes as far back as the 1990s, when tensions emerged between foreign oil corporations and several Niger Delta minority ethnic groups who felt exploited, particularly the Ogoni and the Ijaw. Against this backdrop, the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force grew to be one of the deadliest groups in the region. In 2004, Nigeria’s waters were ranked the most deadly in the world due to the activities of militants who attacked foreign ships, oil installations and vandalized oil pipelines. Despite efforts by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration to prevail upon Asari Dokubo to stop the vandalism including a one-on-one meeting between Asari Dokubo and President Obasanjo in Abuja, the militant leader and his group continued their operation. This led to Asari Dokubo’s arrest in 2005, after he was charged with treason. Asari Dokubo remained in detention until 2007 when the Umaru Musa Yar’Adua administration, as part of an amnesty arrangement, agreed to his release.

The federal government’s amnesty programme agreement meant that the militants were required to give up their guns and to agree to end the violence in the Niger Delta in exchange for cash rewards and oil protection contracts. According to the Wall Street Journal, Asari Dokubo was promised an annual cash payment of $10 million a year as ‘pipeline security protection fee’. Although Asari Dokubo kept a relatively low profile, between 2007 and 2013, he was arrested multiple times for violence-related charges in Nigeria and the Benin Republic, the West African nation that has been his second home, and where he owns a university and other investments.

Asari Dokubo’s brand of militancy set the tone for the growth of vandalism, kidnapping and sabotage of oil assets in the Niger Delta region. Shortly after Muhammadu Buhari was elected president in 2015, there was a resurgence of militancy in the region leading to a significant reduction in Nigeria’s oil production and revenue. In 2016, the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company revealed that militant activities reduced Nigeria’s oil production and export by about 50 per cent and led to a revenue loss of over N1.5 trillion. Ultimately, Buhari had to concede, and his administration promised to continue paying for the amnesty programme. Between March and May 2021, and through the office of the special assistant to the president on Niger Delta affairs, the government paid N2.63 billion to 10 different personal accounts of former Niger Delta militants.

Although violence and kidnapping have reduced in the Niger Delta region, oil theft continues to be a major concern. In April 2023, the chairman of Shell Companies in Nigeria, Dr Osagie Okubor, revealed that Nigeria lost an opportunity to produce and sell about 65,700,000 barrels of oil in the last one year due to pipeline vandalism and resultant oil theft, which translated to about N2.3 trillion loss in oil revenue.

With his meeting with Tinubu, Asari Dokubo’s reemergence has raised concerns among Nigerians. Retired military officer and chieftain of Tinubu’s party, the All Progressives Congress, Akinola Akinjide Kazeem, warned the president to be wary of Asari Dokubo, arguing that not only is Asari Dokubo a former militant, Asari Dokubo should also have prevented oil theft considering he has a federal government contract to do so. Kazeem added that Asari Dokubo’s allegations are, ‘capable of setting the country ablaze (and) may pitch Nigerians against the military and create room to distrust, and this is not good for the country.’

Historically, attempts by previous governments to work with Asari Dokubo have either failed or fallen short of the desired agreement. He was arrested during Obasanjo and Yar’Adua’s administration and was very critical of the Buhari administration. While Tinubu is clearly interested in improving Nigeria’s oil sector following the removal of fuel subsidy, ‘working’ with former militants, some of whom set the tone for the destruction in the Niger Delta region may be disastrous. Unlike his predecessor, the president seems to be quick with policymaking, having made significant policy changes since his inauguration on 29 May. Nigerians will be looking to see whether Tinubu can hack working with Asari Dokubo or whether this move will be his first major gaffe

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